Tales of ConQuesT (48)–The Writing Part

I love  participating in panel discussions at science fiction conventions–and I was part of several at ConQuesT 48 held this and every year in Kansas City on Memorial Day by my home science fiction group, the Kansas City Science Fiction and Fantasy Society


I participated in several panel discussions at ConQuesT. In addition to sharing an hour of reading with Sean Demory of Pine Float Press, my other scheduled panels all could be potential subjects for future blog posts. Please comment below, if you’d like to see more on any of these topics!

What Gives Characters Depth?

This panel focused on writing techniques, plus a review of “3-D characters we love” and why we chose them. It was ably moderated by Rob Howell. I was joined on the panel by P. R. AdamsLynette M. Burrows, and Marguerite Reed.

L-R: P. R. Adams, Lynette M. Burrows, Marguerite Reed, and moderator Rob Howell

Our discussion ranged through such questions as what makes a character come to life, our assorted techniques for “getting to know” our characters, and what happens when the scene you thought you were going to write takes a right-angle turn because “the character had something else in mind”/you realized it wouldn’t be in character for the person to do/say/think what you’d originally intended. It was a fun and lively discussion.

Intellectual Property and Literary Estates

I got to moderate this panel (former teacher: I like to make sure the discussions are fueled by lots of good, well-researched, leading questions, that everyone gets a chance to talk, and that the audience is actively engaged in shaping the conversation). I’d signed up to be on the panel because of my connection with the administration of my late brother-in-law’s literary estate.

My fellow panelists were Dora Furlong, who’d been involved in establishing a foundation to administer the literary estate of a writer and game-creator; Susan R. Matthews, who’d gone through the process of writing a will and discovered that there were all sorts of decisions to be made about who would administer her literary estate; and Craig R. Smith, whose focus was more on contracts and protecting intellectual property.

L-R: Susan R. Matthews‘ icon; Dora Furlong; Craig R. Smith‘s book cover.

We discussed the nature of intellectual property, the relative importance of registering ISBNs and copyrights, what is included in a literary estate, the kinds of decisions the executor or trustees of such an estate may have to make, leaving specific instructions (for instance, about what to do with emails and unfinished manuscripts), and many other issues that most writers, artists, or other creative people rarely consider–but which have everything to do with their legacy.

Writing Fight and Combat Scenes

I moderated this panel, too–but I did little talking about my own work on this one. Both of my fellow panelists, Rob Howell and Selina Rosen, are well-spoken, engaging, and knowledgeable, with a depth of background I could admire, but not match (SCA battle-experience, military history studies, martial arts training, and many more varied writing projects than I’ve racked up so far).

L-R: Rob Howell, a photo of an SCA battle by Ron Lutz; and Selina Rosen. Yes, it was a lively panel discussion.

It was a privilege to manage time and audience input, while offering them questions about varieties of research, frequent plot objectives of most fight or combat scenes, tips for keeping the action vivid and interesting, and pet peeves about other authors’ bad practices. Rob, Selina, and the knowledgeable audience kept the panel fast-paced, interesting, and wide-ranging.

Horror Fiction and Xenophobia

Yes, I did moderate this panel also–but as with the “Fight and Combat” panel, I ended up mainly facilitating the experts, namely Sean Demory, Karen Bovenmeyer, and Donna Wagenblast Munro.

Not much of a horror writer or reader myself, I approached this panel from the viewpoint of a multiculturalist who generally looks upon xenophobia (fear of foreigners or, more basically, fear of “the other”) as a negative thing.

L-R: Sean Demory, Karen Bovenmyer, and the Facebook Profile Picture of Donna Wagenblast Munro.

Not to worry. While earlier traditions of horror have embraced the “fear of otherness” via unfamiliar cultural practices, deformity, and/or disease to create the objects of fear, my three fellow panelists are contemporary horror writers who have embraced the “feared other” as their protagonists.

This brought new poignancy to their responses to my questions about “who are the monsters of today?” and which is the most potent bogeyman of today, the terrorist (domestic or foreign), the corporate overlord, the hacker, or the community dedicated to conformity? Reactions were mixed, but ultimately conformity won as the most stifling on the individual level.

I See No Way That Could Possibly Go Wrong

This panel focused on new technologies just beginning to emerge today, and our thoughts about their ramifications in the future. The panelists were, L-R in the photo below, Christine Taylor-Butler, Bryn Donovan, me, and Robin Wayne Bailey. The photographer (and knowledgeable contributor from the audience) is the writer J.R. Boles.

I was not originally scheduled to be on this one, but the designated moderator (who shall go nameless) did not show up for the panel. Bryn and Robin invited me to join them and moderate. Since I actually knew a bit about the topic (thanks largely to researching and writing this blog), I was delighted to leap in.

We had a great discussion, with a lot of intelligent input from the panelists and our knowledgeable audience. We spent most of our time on the question, “What technology that’s now in its infancy would you most like to see developed, and how do you think it would change things as we know them?”

Answers touched on flying cars, 3-D printed kidneys, earpieces or brain implants to transmit data, lunar colonies, asteroid mining, and much more.

IMAGES: I’m the one who put together the ConQuesT 48 banner. It features a logo design by Keri O’Brien and a photo of the lobby of our convention hotel, the Sheraton Kansas City Hotel at Crown Center, which provided the photo. 

The photos of assorted authors with whom I did panels come from the following, gratefully acknowledged sources:

The photo of Rob Howell is from his Amazon Author Page. That of P. R. Adams is from his Amazon author page. That of Lynette M. Burrows is from her Twitter Profile @LynetteMBurrows, and that of Marguerite Reed is from her Twitter Profile, @MargueriteReed9

Dora Furlong’s photo is from her Amazon Author Page. Susan R. Matthews’ image-icon is from her website; I was unable to find a photo of Craig R. Smith, so I finally settled for a cover image of his book, Into the Dark Realm

I’d like to offer special thanks to the Society for Creative Anachronism, and photographer Ron Lutz, for use of the photo Clash of Battle.

The photo of Selina Rosen is a detail from a photo by the indispensable Keith Stokes, taken at Room Con 10 in 2014 (a party hosted by James Holloman at ConQuesT each year) and posted in the MidAmericon Fan Photo Archive

Many thanks to the Johnson County (KS) Library for the photo of Sean Demory (there’s also a great interview with him on that page). The photo of Karen Bovenmyer is from her Twitter profile @karenbovenmyer; unfortunately, I couldn’t find a photo of Donna Wagenblast Munro or a book cover for her anywhere, so finally I substituted an image from her Facebook page.

Last but far from least, many, many thanks to J. R. Boles for the photo of the “I See No Way” panel, from her Twitter account, @writingjen

Political correctness

Let’s talk about “Political Correctness,” since it’s been thrown in my face recently. It came up at my writers’ group Saturday, when a fellow group member whom I normally respect brought a story that was riddled with ugly, offensive racial stereotypes directed toward a particular minority group. During the critique session I called him on this (I wasn’t the only one), and his defense was that he didn’t want to have his story “limited” by political correctness.

This quote cuts both ways in the “political correctness” debate.

I asked him what he meant by “political correctness” in this context, and he said he didn’t want to limit his range of expression. As if “artificial” rules of “correctness” constituted an intellectually narrow approach that fettered his freedom of expression. A story-critique session wasn’t the forum for a full-blown debate. The group’s leader very firmly changed the subject.

I probably wouldn’t ever convince that particular fellow through direct confrontation, in any case. In my experience, when someone who already feels his privilege is under attack and whose area of greatest pride is his intellectual ability, is accused of intellectual malfeasance, his invariable reaction is to dig in his heels and prepare to die rather than yield to a different point of view.

I do, however, continue to challenge the validity of any “expressive freedom” that depends on not restraining oneself from employing demeaning stereotypes. My associate seemed to think that what he called “political correctness” was a kind of intellectual laziness, an unwillingness to “push the envelope” in certain directions, or to challenge social norms. Perhaps ironically, I see it as just the opposite. In my opinion, folks who decry too much “political correctness” generally don’t seem willing to exert themselves intellectually to stretch beyond their own comfort zones or seriously engage a different experience.

Which of those two approaches should one more accurately call an “intellectually lazy” attitude?

It’s a hallmark of privilege when a person sees the need to adapt to others’ viewpoints as an unwarranted inhibition. That’s a “take” on life and social discourse that  ignores or dismisses the fact that anyone from a non-dominant cultural group has to accommodate and adapt near-continually, just to survive and get along in the world. Yet the most blindly privileged folk are the ones who seem to complain the most aggrievedly about political correctness.

This is not to say that all members of minorities or persons of color are perfect. It isn’t even to say that sometimes the “sensitivity line” can’t be too narrowly drawn—although I’d say the most vulnerable among us probably have a better gauge of where to draw that line, and what’s offensive, than the most privileged among us. But it is to say that our art shouldn’t rely on the cruel crutch of cheap shocks at the expense of innocent bystanders. 

It is to say that vicious racial stereotyping is both a morally and intellectually bankrupt way to approach storytelling . . . or to anything else. For God’s sake, can’t we writers dig deeper? If we can’t be merciful, then at least let’s be original.

There’s a truism that if a phrase or expression comes too easily to mind, it’s almost certainly a cliché. Using clichés is an obvious hallmark of weak writing, precisely because it betrays the author’s unwillingness to push past the easy or obvious, and explore new ideas.

What the apologists for ignoring so-called “political correctness” seem to overlook is that every offensive stereotype ever created is both mean-spirited and a cliché of the worst order. The only valid and original thing to do with any cliché is turn it on its head or expose its vacuity it in a fresh new way. That’s not easy, but then—isn’t that a given, if you’re trying to produce real, lasting, meaningful art?

IMAGES: Many (ironic) thanks to The Federalist Papers, for the Voltaire quote, and to Sizzle for the “Freedom to offend” meme. I am indebted to A-Z Quotes for both the Ian Banks quote, and the one from Toni Morrison. Many thanks to all!

Authors, reading

I attended DemiCon 28 last weekend. It’s a science fiction convention in the DesMoines, IA area (technically, Urbandale), where they had an art show, masquerade, panel discussions, parties–the full gamut of things I have learned to anticipate at sf conventions in my decades-long career of attending them.

Mark Van Name does a reading from his novel No Going Back at Balticon in 2012.

And they had author readings.

In my experience, author readings at large conventions by “big name” authors can be standing-room-only events. Author readings by mid-list or relatively unknown authors tend to be the orphan stepchildren of convention programming. If anyone shows up for one, that counts as “wildly successful.”

Some promoting, arm-twisting, and recruitment of friends and family to fill the audience may be required, for newbie writers. We may have loved listening to people read us stories in grade school, or be passionately attached to our audio books and podcasts as adults, but somehow getting people to attend readings at sf conventions continues to be kind of a heavy lift.

As some of my more persistent blog-readers may have noticed, I’m a writer who’s poised on the brink of having a novel to release into the wild. It’s gone through multiple drafts, been professionally edited, and I’ve done all I can to make it the best novel it can be. The time has come to start making people aware it’s coming.

I asked for a reading at DemiCon. Better yet, I got one–although I wasn’t scheduled for many other programming events where I could promote it. I made fliers (with advice from my son about copy writing), and invited everyone I could.

P. C. Haring read several interesting excerpts from his novel Slipspace: Harbinger.

I also was able to connect with a couple of other authors, who also had readings. One of them was P.C. Haring, who’d been scheduled for a reading that morning at 9:00 a.m.

Now, in the normal world, 9:00 a.m., even on a Saturday, is a fairly reasonable hour. At a science fiction convention–especially one with as many lively room parties as DemiCon 28 has, a 9:00 a.m. panel on Saturday might count as cruel and unusual punishment.

I’d noticed this scheduling earlier, and commiserated with him. Then, on an impulse, I offered him the second half of my scheduled hour from 4-5:00 p.m. This was not entirely altruistic on my part: my voice tends to give out after half an hour or so of reading. In any case, he accepted the opportunity. We had a nice attendance–the room was about half-full. I read my first chapter, then he read excerpts from his book. Before we knew it, the hour was over and we’d all had a pleasant listen.

Then we gathered up as many of the audience up as possible, and trooped across the hall to listen to Lettie Prell read from two of her short works. The first, “Emergency Protocol,” is a flash fiction (very short) piece that will be published by Analog Science Fiction and Fact at a future date. It is wonderful: watch for it.

Prell then read excerpts from The Three Lives of Sonata James, a thought-provoking story that’s been reprinted in Some of the Best from Tor.com: 2016, and The Best Science Fiction of the Year: Volume Two, edited by Neil Clarke. Good stuff.

Did I gain anything by encouraging my audience to also listen to P.C. and Lettie?

Could/should I have filled my entire hour, all by myself? Well, certainly I had enough material to read (assuming my voice held up). And from comments I got later, the audience would have been game for listening to me. So maybe I made the wrong call. If you look at it from the point of view that all authors are in competition with each other, then I definitely did. Nice guys finish last, and all that.

But I don’t see the world as a zero-sum game, and I especially don’t look at writing that way.  I cannot possibly write fast enough to be the only author someone reads (unless they read ver-r-r-r-r-ry slo-o-o-o-o-o-owly, indeed!). Even much more prolific authors ultimately can’t. Everyone’s readers are also going to read other authors’ work.

Therefore, I’d rather be a resource, a connector, a person who introduces people to others they may also like, in any given network. I fundamentally do not believe that any given group of writers (or artists) are competing, so much as conducting parallel enterprises. If we conduct our careers in friendly, cooperative ways, as far as I’m concerned, we all gain, and actually might expand our own networks a bit in the process.

IMAGES: Many thanks to the Balticon Podcast, for the photo of author Mark Van Name giving a reading from his novel No Going Back. There aren’t very many photos of that particular activity (author readings at sf cons), so I was relieved to find a good one! The promo card for my novel, Going to the XK9s, is a combination of my copywriting and design, much improved by comments from my son Tyrell Gephardt, and an illustration I commissioned for promotional purposes, by Jeff Porter. The cover art for P. C. Haring’s novel Slipspace: Harbinger is from his website. The illustration for The Three Lives of Sonata James is by Kevin Hong. It is posted here courtesy of Goodreads. Many thanks to all!

To automate, or not to automate? Writers, attorneys, and financial advisors on the line

A Glimpse of the Future?

My recent mid-week posts have focused on the phenomenon of automation in the contemporary workplace–that is, “machines taking over our jobs,” and looking at trends for the future.

Last week, I tackled robotics and automation in the health care industry. Today I’m focused on the symbolic logic crowd, that is, people who mostly traffic in numbers and letters. Thus, I’m looking at writers, attorneys, and financial advisors.

They’re all white-collar jobs, and aspects of each require judgement, creativity, and empathy–but other aspects “turn out to be routine and process-based.” That’s just the kind of thing computers do best.

But writing? Law? Higher-level financial analysis? Well, yeah. With caveats.

Writing 

This one kinda hurts, but certain types of data-heavy information can pretty readily be transformed into prose using a process Klint Finley of Wired describes as “a more complex version of Mad Libs meets mail merge.” Two companies, Automated Insights and Narrative Science are the main contenders in the field at the moment.

The primary uses for this software so far have been in the areas of financial news, sportswriting, and industrial communications. Organizations such as the Associated Press and Fox News have discovered it is (big surprise, here) “considerably less expensive for us to go this route than for us to try to have our own beat reporters at each one of these games,” (That’s Michael Calderon, Big Ten’s director of new media, speaking with Bloomberg Businessweek).

But of course it’s expanding. As a science fiction novelist, I’m under no illusions. Some genres are more friendly toward “formulaic” plots than others (I’ll leave you to judge which ones those might be), but I’m sure the day is coming soon when you’ll be able to plug in certain character and plot elements and the software will crank out a complete “novel” or “short story.”

On the other hand, we’re still very far from a computer that can go into a war zone and make sense of the chaos, write a meaningful human-interest article, or build an exposé, piece by exacting piece. And so far we’re still unable to distill that special “something” that transforms a novel into a mega-bestseller that strikes a chord in millions (if we could, they all would be). We still need human hearts and minds (and a lot of luck!) for that.

Legal Practice

Turns out there’s a lot of mundane drudgery in the practice of law, and untold numbers of documents to review. Firms used to have no choice but to hire a fleet of lawyers and paralegals to review them, but now there’s software to cover that angle. As attorney Bill Herr pointed out to the New York Times, “People get bored, people get headaches. Computers don’t.”

As in the case of doctors, however, you needn’t look for robots to start donning barristers’ wigs or delivering closing arguments in court for a while to come, though I fear the pioneering efforts on that front may come in the form of legal-aid robots for the defense of low-income criminal defendants. Would that be found to be constitutional? (And what would the originalists think of it?)

But behind the scenes, computers are already hard at work. For now, they’re probably cutting down the entry level jobs for lawyers, but their best potential is to save the efforts of the humans for the things that matter most.

Financial Industry Professionals 

Stock trading has forever been transformed by computer-based algorithmic trading, in which high volumes of stocks are traded “using automated pre-programmed trading instructions accounting for variables such as time, price, and volume.” 

However, as you’ve probably extrapolated from the section above that discussed financial writing and business communications, automation has gone much farther since the first automated trading systems went online in the 1970s and ’80s. With all the things they can plug into algorithms these days, have humans become superfluous?

Well, maybe not yet.

Assuming one is fortunate enough to need guidance for investment strategies, we’re still short of a technological singularity, which would place a computer in possession of all the critical thinking, synthesis, and empathy needed to serve human laypersons who have other things to do with their time besides manage their stock portfolios.

Till then, I’d still advise checking with a well-trained, credentialed human.

IMAGES: Many thanks to Before It’s News for the “future vision” graphic, to ResearchPedia.Info, for the “difference between stock market and stock exchange” photo montage, and to Sports Management Degrees for the graphic of the football with data behind it. I am grateful to the Criminal Lawyers and Attorneys organization for the courtroom photo, and to The Balance for the photo of the financial advisor with her clients.